The Myth of the Influencer in Viral Content Marketing

Viral marketing is booming today and marketers are investing more time, money and resources in it than ever before. At the top of many marketers’ viral strategy is the idea of the influencer. As many as three out of every four marketers plan to invest in influencer marketing in the next year.

The Million Dollar Question

Marketers have long embraced the idea of harnessing influencers – seemingly ordinary people with a particular and rare set of social gifts, who determine what others think, do and buy – to improve performance and spread ideas to the masses. The million dollar question: is influencer marketing the best use of your time, money and resources?

Identifying the Influencer

You already know the profile of a marketing influencer: a connector who seems to know everyone, a maven who possesses deep domain knowledge and a salesman with the gift of gab. You also know the theory behind influencer marketing: people with a unique set of social gifts possess the power to influence a social epidemic, such as an idea spreading virally across the social web. What you may not understand is the logic behind influencer marketing: that it takes more than one person to spread an idea.

The Baseball Stadium Wave Example

Think of spreading ideas across the social web as a wave at a baseball stadium. Could any one person with “special traits” successfully initiate or interrupt the process of thousands of people throwing their arms up in sequence? No. That’s because the wave – as well as the viral nature of the social web – is a collective effort. No one person has the power or influence to impact this kind of collective behavior on a grand scale.

A Rational Yet Unproven Theory

It stands to reason that a so-called “influential” person is more likely to produce a viral chain than a regular Joe. However, little evidence stands to prove this seemingly popular theory. Marketers have long validated the influencer theory in hindsight by fitting it to the facts, but the hypothesis lacks any real predictive power. If we are unable to predict the viral capacity of influencers, then there’s really no science to support the theory.

Separating Fact from Fiction

What we do know is that some people are more influential than others. We also know that an idea can spread virally without help from a highly connected, influential person.  All things considered, an influential person may be only slightly more likely to spread an idea to the masses. The theory is thus precarious at best.

The bottom line is that investing in an unproven influencer theory to improve performance in viral marketing may not be the best use of your time, money and resources. There may be better, proven ways to consistently increase the likelihood of viral sharing.

Influencers vs. Large Numbers of Ordinary People

Consider the advantages of harnessing the power of a large number of ordinary people over identifying a small number of “influential” people. Adopting an influencer market mindset could potentially prove successful but if it fails, you will have exhausted time, money and resources for no improvement in performance.

On the contrary, you could reach a mass audience of ordinary people and encourage them to share, increasing the likelihood to promote a viral chain. Even if those ideas never go viral, you can still improve performance by reaching more people. The ability to reach just one hundred more people amounts to some type of boost in performance.

No Magic Formula

Unfortunately, there’s no scientific or magic formula to promote viral marketing. Few (if any) publishers can spread ideas virally on a consistent basis. However, it might be in your best interest to focus on publishing interesting ideas, reaching as many people as possible and encouraging them to share. In the end, this strategy may be a more effective use of your time, money and resources.

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